Saturday, July 12, 2014

Plus ça change: Perfume and Morality in Le Corbeau (1943), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

It is rare to happen upon a great movie among recent releases. Long before the decline of the movie theater, I adopted a strategy to protect myself from the flood of mediocrity pouring out of the Hollywood faucet. I simply stopped watching first-run movies. I still enjoyed going to the cinema, but I'd stick to revival houses or places like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I've been known to watch the entire French Film Festival. (It is held every summer over a two- or three-week period.) For most of my film viewing, I have depended on rentals: DVDs, and before that video tapes. This strategy is much less safe today, as many DVDs are now released within weeks of live screenings, so lots of "stuff" not worth watching is always mixed in with the greats when I peruse the shelves at the Cambridge Public Library, which has supplanted Netflix as my primary source of films.

I've noticed of late that there seems to be a trend going on in movie-making similar to the one I've witnessed in publishing. Movie makers and authors appear to be landing contracts before producing works, and then when deadline time rolls around, they sometimes have to hustle to get the thing done. In movies, there seems to be a further factor involved. A number of productions starring big names start out pretty decently, but then seem to end prematurely, as in twenty or thirty minutes before the standard Hollywood mark of two hours. It's not that the works are finished--they are not. Instead, they are hurriedly wrapped up, it seems, with a makeshift dénouement thrown together to get the job done sufficiently to satisfy the terms of the contract. 

My hunch is that in the case of inadequately incubated films the moviemaking team (and these days they are huge, by the way) has exceeded their budget, and the big names in question probably have better things to do, other commitments, even if the producers were able to pull together the extra cash needed to keep them around. I've read many books in the twenty-first century with similarly weak endings, relative to the quality of the opening pages and chapters. It's as though the author has simply run out of steam but is obligated to sign off on the thing by a certain date and so rushes to finish it up. Many books published today also appear not to have been edited. 

Needless to say, I find these trends regrettable, though fully comprehensible in this highly capitalized world. Nearly everyone seems to be more interested in the outer packaging and hype than in the content and form. Similar dynamics appear to be affecting the perfume industry as well. The sheer number of new launches each year virtually guarantees that many of these fragrances have been rush jobs. What else could they be, with flankers running rampant? Anyone who does not believe that most flankers are trivial probably has not given enough of them a sniff.  Not that I think that it's olfactorily worthwhile for anyone to do so.

I imagine that serious perfumers working for the conglomerates may be a bit jaded by now, given the tough budgets, low-grade materials, and IFRA restrictions all conspiring to impose severe constraints on their creative output and ultimately reining in their heartfelt desire to produce something great. Some among them may think of themselves more as hacks than as persons in a position to realize their olfactory dreams through the launch of a masterpiece. Not going to happen, if the creator has to come up with a "new" scent by cobbling together a bunch of inferior "stuff" determined by marketers to be in demand among Jill Q. and Joe. Q Consumer.

I've been thinking about old films and old perfumes and old books recently--and also old tea (pu-erh), but I'll save those thoughts for another day. Unlike vintage lovers, who worship most any perfume launched pre-Y2K, I do not believe that something old is automatically better than anything new. It's just not true. There were plenty of mediocre books published in centuries past about which we know nothing because they have been essentially forgotten. Some of them were bestsellers back in the day, but they have not stood the test of time. The problem for perfume, of course, is that it degrades and fades away, so we can never really know what it was like when it was launched. All we have are surviving bottles, and all we can do is hope that they reflect in some way the intended scent of their creator. 

I do believe, however, that the percentage of excellent perfumes in the twentieth century was much greater than today. That is not because I prostrate myself before all things said to be vintage. No, not at all. It's a recognition of the fact that many more perfumes are being produced much more quickly and using much less natural material than ever before in the history of perfumery. A big part of this trend has to do with who runs the show. The head honcho at Procter & Gamble gets the last word on the scent of shampoo and deodorant and also perfume. 

Aren't they all really just variations on a theme? A toiletry is a toiletry by any other name.

A toiletry by any other name would smell as clean.

That's the sort of wisdom I imagine bubbling up in the mind of the CEO of a megaconglomerate such as P&G. Everything they produce, at the end of the day, is a source of profit, no more and no less. The key to maximizing profit in the perfume arena appears to involve, the savviest of marketing strategists have figured out, persuading people to believe that they really prefer to smell clean and abstract, not complicated like real flowers and other natural substances, but streamlined and simple. The perfume equivalent to SSRI happiness. Don't worry, be happy. And if you begin to entertain ever so faintly the idea that there might be something awry somewhere in the universe, something which you might set out to do something about, our culture tutors you to Shut it out, which is remarkably easy to do these days. Take a chill pill. Literally.

What about old movies? Are old movies automatically better than new movies? Well, not automatically, but they have stood the test of time. If people are still watching them seventy years after they were produced, then there is probably a good reason for that. 

With that rather circumlocutory introduction, I would like without further ado to commend to your attention a film which I only just discovered, though it was produced way back in 1943:

Le Corbeau [The Raven] 
directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

The first clue that this film is worth watching--aside from sherapop's enthusiastic recommendation--is the fact that Le Corbeau was reviled by the Nazis, the Partisans, and the Catholic Church! This film is so modern, and so intelligent, and so well-paced, and so complete and fully incubated that it would bear your sustained attention even if it were not also beautiful. This work is not, as you may surmise, a movie version of the classic narrative poem by Edgar Allan Poe, many of whose texts, for your information (in case you didn't know) were translated into French by the equally great Charles Baudelaire. 

Instead, Le Corbeau offers a rather La Rochefoucauldian (or is it Maupassantian???)  morality tale using a long concatenation of multivalent metaphors. The setting is St. Robin, "any village", and the residents present the complete range of human qualities: the good, the bad, and above all, the ugly.

The main character is the dashing Dr. Germain, after whom every single woman--and some married as well!--lusts. You know the drill: a handsome doctor who happens also to be an eligible bachelor! Sound familiar? Plus ça change. 

Salon de Parfum readers may by now be growing restless. Has sherapop lost her marbles? Isn't this supposed to be a perfume blog? 

Calmez-vous, mes chers amis. Indeed, I have brought this film to your attention not only because it is a masterful representative of several genres of cinema simultaneously, but because it further features the following scene in which perfume is touched upon in an incredibly modern way--remarkably relevant to what we are seeing in contemporary society today.

Dr. Germain has been summoned to examine Denise, a young woman with a decidedly femme fatale demeanor and a snarl that could give Sid Vicious a run for his money. Denise is bedridden, where she is painting her toenails and smoking, for want of anything better to do:

Upon hearing the doctor knock at her door, Denise immediately buries herself under the bed covers, though it is clear that her wet polish must be smearing the sheets.

She extinguishes her cigarette in an ashtray located conveniently next to an open bottle of champagne. She then begins to cough and deploys her most feeble-sounding voice to instruct the doctor to enter her chambers.

Before commencing the examination, Dr. Germain rushes to shut the windows, as the sound of the children yelling in the courtyard is grating on his nerves.  He then pauses for a moment, sniffs the air, and asks Denise whether she is wearing perfume.

Denise replies, "You don't like it?" To which the doctor curtly retorts that he should have left the windows open. 

Why is this exchange so interesting? First of all, because the scent which displeases Dr. Germain is in all likelihood a commingling of smoke from Denise's recently extinguished cigarette and the fumes of her wet nail polish. Perhaps she is also wearing Chanel no 5 (apparently all the rage at that time), but surely those two strong non-perfume odors would still be hanging in the air and dominate the space. 

Dr. Germain, in other words, is a member of the perfume police, who bristles at the slightest detection of any scent which he can denounce as foreign and unnatural. He simply assumes that the odor in question is perfume, for he is opposed to the very idea of perfume, whether beautiful or ugly.

For Dr. Germain, perfume is a part of Denise's slutty lifestyle. Her reputation precedes her, and the good doctor soon discovers that she has no illness whatsoever. This house call was only a pretext for a physical examination! While putting his stethoscope away in preparation to depart, Dr. Germain brusquely informs the young woman that she has no need of a doctor--at least not one like him, the snide insinuation of course being that she needs to see a shrink.

Rather than spoil this fabulous work for you, let me simply assuage any concerns you may be having about what is going to transpire between these two comely characters. A bit later, Denise has a second chance with Dr. Germain, and this time, she takes a slightly different tack.

In the end, the much larger mystery, of who is sending the townspeople letters filled with the juicy details of all their viciousness, is solved. But to find out the rest of the story, you'll have to watch the film!

"Parce que c'est aussi bête que ça: 
Je t'aime."